The periods of the New Deal and World War II are usually seen as period's of liberalism's greatest glory. The conventional wisdom is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved the nation from capitalism's excesses with the economic reforms of the New Deal, and then led this newly remade country into victory in World War II. David Kennedy's remarkable new book covers these two periods and shows that this period can impart as many conservative lessons as liberal ones.
"Freedom From Fear" is really two books under one cover. The first is a history of the Great Depression and the New Deal. Mr. Kennedy, a professor of history at Stanford, is fully familiar with the territory in question. His book, "Over Here," is one of the best histories of America during World War I. Mr. Kennedy starts his book, part of the Oxford History of the United States series, not far after "Over Here" ended. He paints a quick portrait of America in the 1920s, an increasingly prosperous nation but still one with severe pockets of poverty. Income distributions notwithstanding, America in the 1920s suffered from real, as opposed to relative poverty, with one third of the nation lacking.
This problem worsened with the Great Depression, which Mr. Kennedy rightly notes was not the fault of Herbert Hoover. The inability of the nation to recover under his one-term presidency was not Hoover's fault, either. As Mr. Kennedy says, "despite the New Deal's exertions and innovations, and contrary to much later mythology, in no subsequent year in the 1930s would the unemployment rate fall below 14 percent. The average for the decade as a whole was 17.1 percent." The worldwide depression lasted throughout the decade and Roosevelt's New Deal policies did not extricate the nation from the severest economic collapse in our history.
Still, Hoover failed to instill confidence in the shaken nation, and Roosevelt was almost guaranteed the presidency from the moment he entered the fray. While running for president, FDR was so confident that he asked Columbia professor Raymond Moley "for expert professional advice on a variety of national issues." Roosevelt's request for academic advice leading to what came to be known as his Brain Trust, is reminiscent of the recent pilgrimages of conservative academics to the governor's mansion in Austin.
However, "though much magnified in the history books, the Brain Trust was a small and decidedly transient group of advisers whose most lasting legacy lay more in the realm of literary descriptions of the New Deal than it did in the realm of durable policy results."
Similarly, the New Deal itself did not amount to nearly as much as is commonly perceived. Mr. Kennedy reminds us that in 1938, less than halfway into Roosevelt's tenure, he signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which "was the last New Deal reform ever to be inscribed in the statute books." So, the New Deal lasted for only five years, and the first New Deal, which included the National Industrial Recovery Act, was deemed unconstitutional by the "nine old men" of the Supreme Court.
Part, though not all, of the reason for the short tenure of the New Deal reforms was the onset of the great struggle in Europe. Mr. Kennedy relates that it was the start of the war and not any New Deal reforms that ended the Great Depression. He does a good job of explaining Roosevelt's "push me pull you" strategy of edging Americans closer to the conflict in Europe, only to bring them further away to satisfy the demands of the nation's powerful isolationist sentiment. Pulled in opposite directions by the American people on one end and Winston Churchill on the other, Roosevelt's position was not an easy one.
Unsurprisingly, Churchill won the lopsided battle - with a little help from the Japanese at Pearl Harbor - and the United States had to focus its full industrial and military might on winning the multi-front war. This was no easy task. First, the nation was not prepared for war, either militarily or industrially. Furthermore, the attack at Pearl Harbor dealt a severe blow to the U.S. Navy. However, Mr. Kennedy shows that the blow was not a crippling one. World War II was the first carrier-based war, where navies fought battles without seeing each other's ships. The Pearl Harbor attack failed to eliminate the U.S. carrier force, and the United States used its carriers to project itself slowly but inevitably across the Pacific.
Even though America did not begin its main European offensive until almost two and a half years after the declaration of war with Germany, Mr. Kennedy's description of the war in Europe is compelling. He also provides in a few short pages a taste of Stephen Ambrose's volumes on D-Day and the subsequent push through France and into Germany.
While Mr. Kennedy's sections on individual episodes are short, the overall book is quite a doorstop, running to over 900 pages. Oxford has printed 50,000 copies, which seems a lot for such a large and serious book, but Mr. Kennedy does his best to keep the project moving. Still, the book is not light weekend fare, and readers committed to reading all of it should block out large quantities of time.
For those more inclined to skip and skim, the half of the book describing America's struggle in World War II goes faster. Of course, battles are inherently more interesting than legislation, and one would have to worry about a book where the creation of the National Recovery Act turned pages faster than the Battle of Midway. But this should not in any way detract from the whole of Mr. Kennedy's accomplishment. His book is a worthy addition to the Oxford series, and an invaluable compendium of the hyperactive period that contained the Great depression and the Second World War.